Distance: 18-mile lollipop
Elevation gain: 900 ft
This ride is a lot like the Golden Gate Bridge loop—a complete chestnut, over-hyped and tourist-ridden. Plus it’s all about money (you ride by Pebble Beach Golf Course, for god’s sake)—but, all that notwithstanding, it’s a delightful bike ride. Every time I do it, I wish I could live there so I could do it every day. You ride by waves smashing into coastal rocks, through lanes of coastal cypresses, do a nice little climb, roll through nearly unpopulated Monterey pine forest, then do a fun, fast descent, all on the best road surface money can buy. The forty-million-dollar houses (no exaggeration) are actually pretty cool too, if you can forget the socio-political issues.
This isn’t just a scenic tourist stroll—the riding is outstanding. The road contour on the south side is a delightful rollercoaster—up and down and back and forth—and the inland half of the loop is better—glassy smooth meandering, intermixed with effortless descending. You’ll do some work—my computer recorded 1300 ft vert. The traffic can be a bit noisome, granted, and if you can do the ride before 10 AM so much the better. Of course you’d like to do the ride at sunset, but that’s when everyone else wants to be there too—the last time I did it at sunset, one parking area had four gigantic motor coaches disgorging tourists.
This is California coastal riding, so wind is likely and the weather can feel surprisingly cold given the temperature—dress prudently.
(To see an interactive version of the map/elevation profile, click on the ride name, upper left, wait for the new map to load, then click on the “full screen” icon, upper right.)
The route is impossible to miss. Because the locals want to keep you from exploring the neighborhoods, they’ve painted huge, unmissable “17-Mile Drive” signs on the road and posted beautiful wooden route marker posts at all the intersections. Just follow them. Start where the Drive takes off from Sunset Drive in Pacific Grove. There are places where you can park on the dirt shoulder near the beginning of the ride, or find parking along Sunset. Immediately you’ll see a manned gate charging an entrance fee from the cars, but you’re free, so bypass it on the R (officially you’re supposed to pay a cyclists’ fee, but no one ever does).
Take an absurdly well-signed R onto Spanish Bay Rd. (not the first R, into a golf course and the Inn at Spanish Bay). When you hit the water, take a moment to detour into the parking lot on your immediate R and explore the playful rock cairns covering Spanish Bay Beach (signed “Spanish Bay #3,” referring to the numbered tour guide you don’t have because you didn’t pay a car fee). Continue along the ocean, stopping at parking lots for the views.
Let me be brutally honest: this stretch of shoreline is nice (the tourists are impressed), but it isn’t spectacular, or even the best in the immediate area—the coastline on the nearby Monterey Bike Path ride between Asilomar Beach and Lover’s Point is much more dramatic. Additionally, you can’t get close to the water easily—you’re largely restricted to formal parking-lot viewing areas, whereas on the Monterey Bike Path route you can tide-pool and boulder-hop to your heart’s content.
Continuing on our mapped route, make a big L turn and climb up from the water onto a bluff running SW along the shore. Here the road is lined by grand cypresses and some of the most expensive mansions you’ll ever see. Feel free to fantasize. The tread is up and down, back and forth, at a deliciously relaxed tempo through deep shade—the best part of the ride, to my mind.
Just after you pass Pebble Beach Golf Course and ride through the parking lot, you reach an intersection and turn R. A sign reads “Narrow road—cyclists exercise caution,” and you’re in for a few minutes of white-knuckling. I guess the cars are free to continue their reckless ways.
At the southeast corner of the loop, the road Y’s, with the main road turning right-angle L and beginning an obvious climb away from the water, and the secondary road going R and dropping to a lovely back door into the hamlet of Carmel (see Adding Miles below). There’s a temptation to turn around here and retrace your steps, since you’re naturally keen to do all that sweet riding a second time, but I wouldn’t—what lies ahead is not to be missed. Do the substantial (800-ft) climb up to Hwy 68. Ignoring the R to the exit gate, go L, paralleling 68, then R to cross over 68 as soon as you can. When you’re on the overpass, all noticeable climbing is over.
What follows is just a perfectly sweet 7 miles of cycling. Continue on the main road through a series of intersections, mostly descending, all the way back to Spanish Bay Rd. All the sight-seeing cars leave the Scenic Drive at Carmel or the Hwy 68 gate, and few people live back here, so you’ll have this back side of the loop all to yourself. In some ways it’s the best part of the loop.
The one place where you might be in doubt as to the route is when you close the loop at Spanish Bay Rd, which you took to get to the shoreline earlier. An enormous, unmissable sign painted on the road will tell you that the Scenic Drive goes L, down Spanish Bay Rd. toward the ocean. Well, the loop part of our route does, but you already did that, and if you go down there you’ll find yourself retracing the loop forever. There are worse fates. But ignore the sign, go straight, and you’ll re-ride the stem of the lollipop and end the ride at the Sunset Drive entrance.
Shortening the route: Turn around at the Pebble Beach Golf Club. You won’t save miles but you’ll eliminate the climb.
Adding miles: The 17-Mile Drive works its way around the perimeter of a network of residential streets, and you can explore any of them. The architecture is fascinating everywhere, and there are equestrian stables with rich girls doing dressage and such—it’s a whole world in there you’re only allowed to glimpse. Reader John recommends Palmero Way and Ronda Drive, both on your L as you pass the Pebble Beach Golf Course.
At the start of our route you’re a quarter-mile from our Monterey Bay Bike Path.
At the southeast corner of the 17-Mile Scenic Drive loop, at the Y, if you go R instead of L, in a quarter-mile you reach the back door into Carmel, perhaps the most adorable village in America. Every house looks like a variation on Hansel and Gretel’s candy house, every restaurant serves good and interesting food, every shop boasts tasteful, unique goods and friendly staff. You can ride down to the beach via Ocean Avenue, take the simply and appropriately named Scenic Road past the beach bungalows, and eventually work your way to Hwy 1, at which point you’re seven miles from my beloved Robinson Canyon Road ride. A few miles past Robinson is our East Carmel Valley Road ride.
A reader asks: I’m intending to stay in Pacific Grove. Any modestly priced cabins? Lowest I’ve seen is $145/night. Any suggestions?
JR: $145 is about right. I’ve taken to staying in airbnb’s in Marina and that area—a short drive to everywhere but cheap and pleasant. Pacific Grove or Monterey itself has severe restrictions on airbnb.
Scenic Drive is one of the most epic roads in California. Architecture is preferable for me to the Megamansions in the Golf Slum (lol), and that white sand beach curving away towards Big Sur—just epic.
One house was only $10 Million. When I win the lottery Tuesday night, that will still not be enough. 🙂
As you’re finishing the loop, there’s a small empty lot on your R that’s for sale. I think it’s only $5 mil. You could build to suit.
Yes, the shoreline riding can seem surprisingly short on this route. To get more shoreline, start riding near Pt. Pinos Lighthouse and ride Sunset Dr. around to where it runs into the start of our lollipop. The houses are only worth a few million each, but the ocean is just as good.
Pretty much any ride is car-free at 6:30 AM, which is why I ride then whenever I can.
Did this loop on Friday (4/12) and will second everyone’s thoughts to do this as early in the day as possible. Sunset is obviously beautiful, but you will be contending with car after car of distracted drivers.
Hi Jay. I did the 17-mile Drive/Ride twice this weekend, and your notes are spot-on! Your descriptions helped convince me it was worth the time, and it sure was. Just an FYI if you’re leaving from the Carmel gate: As soon as you get through the gate it’s quite a climb, but well worth it! Thank you!